Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Selfish Giant

2013, UK, directed by Clio Bernard

Something of an object lesson in how to film an impoverished community without being either sentimental or patronizing -- with the very obvious precursor being Ken Loach's near-peerless Kes over forty years ago, and not just because the two films happen to feature young protagonists. Bernard clearly knows her milieu, never flinching from depicting the details of tough lives on the margins but also avoiding wallowing in the struggles she depicts. Her two central characters are troubled and yet also rounded, resourceful lads buffeted for the most part by adults who are generally at their wits' end psychologically or financially (often both). The young boys seek validation where they can, and there are moments of great tenderness here and there despite the rough backdrop in which they live -- and honour from unexpected sources. While Bernard's storytelling is resolutely realist in tone she's also adept at finding visual beauty in unpromising settings, and when she very briefly departs from the realist mode late in the film, in a wonderfully judged sequence that parallels the opening of the film, the moment has a rare punch.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Quai d'Orsay

2013, France, directed by Bertrand Tavernier

I've been fond of Bertrand Tavernier for years: he's a remarkably adaptable director, moving across genres quite effectively, with a very crisp, straightforward style and while some of his films don't quite succeed -- L'Appât, in particular, seemed just a touch too generically anodyne -- there's always a great of interest in his filming choices. Indeed, his interviews about the making of Quai d'Orsay are fascinating in their own right, because the film was based on a graphic novel yet Tavernier abandoned many of the elements of the source material, particularly the lead character's sci-fi fantasia. That seems, to me, very much to the film's benefit, for there's at least as much scope for absurdity and oddity in the reality of one young man's experiences as a consultant in France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Tavernier's other great bit of wisdom is to grant full rein to Thierry Lhermitte, who has perhaps never been better than here. He's in scintillating form as the minister himself, delivering a wonderful whirlwind of a performance (sometimes literally, given his propensity to sweep through his office); the only downside is that it makes you wish he'd given as much of himself to many of his earlier roles (or that the raw material was rather better).

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Pain & Gain

2013, US, directed by Michael Bay

I make no claims for its profundity but the real-life material and Michael Bay's style are well-matched here -- excess is all his characters can think about, and the onscreen action is surprisingly true to the actual events behind the film, which barely bear thinking about. The problem is that any social insight is undermined by Bay's tendency to amp up Every Single Moment, whether it's with camera swirls or unexpected angles or color saturation (or all of the above and a bit more) -- he's too committed to showing us every trick in his box every time to really dig beneath the glossy surface.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014


1980, Australia, directed by Stephen Wallace

Bryan Brown was a busy man around 1980, moving from smaller parts to the big time with Breaker Morant and this very fine prison film, based on an actual prison riot that took place in Australia in the 1970s. Like Short Eyes a few years earlier, the film is written by an ex-con and it's very good on some of the small details of prison life, particularly, in this case, the fine gradations of power not just between prisoners and guards but within each of those groups; also like the American film, there's a bluntness about sex, particularly in the prison context, that's refreshing by more recent standards. Brown sometimes comes across as a rather lazy performer, coasting on his charm rather than pushing himself, but here he's fully committed in a role that's by turns magnetic and unsympathetic.

Sunday, June 29, 2014


1952, USA/Italy/Morocco/France, directed by Orson Welles

Othello is a tough play to love, even by the standards of Shakespeare's tragedies: there's a fascination in seeing unsympathetic characters collide, but it's hard to become entirely caught up in their self-absorption since it is, self-evidently, their own. That, for me, makes Othello himself a particular challenge: he sets himself apart from other men, and when things begin to go wrong for him, even through betrayal by an intimate, it's difficult to make the emotional journey toward sympathy. In some ways, Iago is easier to identify with since his feet are so manifestly of clay. Micheal MacLiammoir does wonders with what is a very difficult part, where he must convince the other characters that he possesses virtues that the audience knows quite well to be entirely lacking in his makeup. Even more dazzling is Welles's ability to maintain a unity of tone across the film's multi-year, peripatetic shoot: while the actors' appearances vary through weight loss/gain or changes in makeup, they appear able to seamlessly draw on the same performances, and Welles makes remarkable use of the various locations in support of his actors. One extended conversation between Othello and Iago gains immeasurably, for instance, for being shot in a single take as the two men walk slowly down an apparently endless set of battlements, while elsewhere the castle interiors taking on the brooding tone of a noir city, where one senses that loyalties can swiftly be exchanged for personal gain.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

L'Inconnu du lac

2013, France, directed by Alain Guiraudie

Formally fascinating, with Guiraidie filming at just a single location -- a lakeside cruising spot -- and using only natural sound. The action is pared down to a series of repeated interactions as each day blends into the next over the course of a week or so of summer, the passage of time marked mostly by the arrival and departure of cars and the greetings that punctuate each morning. The film is also a very personal meditation on gay sexuality on the part of the director, with Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) something of an avatar for Guiraudie, torn by his desire for another man despite his knowledge of that man's actions.

I'm not familiar with Guiraudie's past films -- the clips I've seen suggest a broad, even comic sensibility very much removed from the spare, controlled approach here -- but the evidence of L'Inconnu du lac suggests a director fully in control of his means, carefully orchestrating suspense by revealing just enough of his characters' motivations to create alarm in the viewer, while cleverly exploiting the semi-privacy of the apparently idyllic location so that we're uncertain of what might be hidden at any given moment. The finale departs from the apparent realism of the rest of the film, suggesting instead something of the force of a parable; I found it less satisfying as an outcome, although entirely in keeping with the actions of a character whose essential function is to represent danger, unlike the other more rounded and, in most ways, more interesting participants.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


1978, Australia, directed by Phillip Noyce

Newsfront feels like two films uneasily stitched together: a compelling portrait of the Australian newsreel teams of the postwar, pre-television era that is interspersed with a schematic set of domestic interactions that introduce moments of melodrama on a predictable schedule. The domestic dramas are sometimes used to provide some commentary on the broader social changes at work in Australian society (such as the challenges of reconciling Catholic values with new social mores, or the uneasy relationship with the United States), but on other occasions they feel trite and distracting from the real meat of the film. The most engaging moments are all related to the actual business of making the newsreels: Noyce intercuts actual footage with some remarkably well-staged recreations, particularly of the 1955 Maitland floods, but also, in a more light-hearted vein, the long-distance Redex motor trials or the coming of television, which surely must have been seen as a greater threat than the film suggests given that the Australian newsreel industry would have been well aware of the medium's impact in the US.


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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States